Phillies manager Pete Mackanin favors using honey over vinegar when trying to teach enigmatic Odubel Herrera the right way to play the game.
But even Patient Pete has his limits.
So when Herrera did not run out a dropped third strike in the sixth inning of Tuesday night's 5-0 loss to the Houston Astros at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay), Mackanin yanked him from the game as part of a double switch, a remarkable move considering Herrera has been the club's best hitter, batting .331 (58 for 175) since June 1.
"It had something to do with it," Mackanin admitted. "I'm going to talk to him tomorrow."
Herrera knows well the way to Mackanin's office. He's been called in front of the principal a number of times this season for transgressions that range from looking completely disinterested during some at-bats, to boneheaded base-running plays, to general lack of hustle. On one occasion, Mackanin fined Herrera for completely ignoring an order not to steal a base. Herrera decided to go anyway and was thrown out in a close game.
Herrera's antics have been noticed in the other dugout and in his own clubhouse. He lined a ball to the wall in the first inning Tuesday night and Astros centerfielder Derek Fisher made a nice running catch. Herrera had clearly assumed the ball would hit off the wall because he flipped his bat and did not run hard out of the box. After Fisher made the catch, players in the Houston dugout mocked Herrera's gaudy bat flip and later in the game Astros pitcher Charlie Morton threw one up and in on Herrera. Coincidence? Who knows?
Herrera was the Phillies' best offensive player during his first two seasons in the majors, hitting .291 with a .773 OPS in 2015-2016. Last winter, management rewarded the 25-year-old centerfielder with a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension. The move identified Herrera as a building block as he is the only player on the roster with a long-term deal.
Herrera was aware that his being pulled from the game was a topic of discussion in Mackanin's postgame news conference, but he did not stick around to speak with reporters.
Catcher Cameron Rupp did speak with reporters and he admitted that Herrera's misdeeds have been noticed in the clubhouse.
"It’s not a secret. It’s talked about," Rupp said. "If you guys are seeing it, we are seeing it. It is what it is. We can say it to him, Pete has said it to him. It’s no secret and when you don’t do it, you put Pete in that position to do what he did.
"Pete is the manager and what he asks us to do, we’re supposed to do. It’s a team thing and one guy can’t just not follow the rules. It’s not the first time. It has happened before and that’s something we don’t want to see. We want him in the game. He’s a good player. Pete doesn’t ask a whole lot of us. He asks us to play the game hard and play the game the right way. Guys are going to make physical mistakes. Mental mistakes are something you can control.
"Yeah, it’s frustrating. There is no doubt about it. But it’s something he asks us to do and we have to do it."
Rupp mentioned that some teammates, including Freddy Galvis, have spoken to Herrera about his flaws. Galvis, like Herrera, hails from Venezuela.
"At the end of the day, it is him that has to do it, not anybody else," Rupp said. "It's hard for us. He’s a grown man. He has to learn on his own. We can only say so much. Guys have said things. I know Freddy has talked to him. Juan Samuel has. The language barrier is there, but you have the Latin guys who can tell him. He understands enough English. But it’s something only he can control. We can only do so much."
The Phillies have lost two nights in a row to Houston, a team with a powerhouse offense and the second-best record in the majors at 67-33. On Tuesday night, the right-hander Morton held the Phils to three hits over seven shutout innings. He struck out nine. Why can't the Phillies get pitchers like that?
Rookie right-hander Nick Pivetta pitched well against a tough lineup for five innings, but he gave up five hits and four runs in the sixth inning as the game got away from him.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of the latest meeting between Mackanin and Herrera on Wednesday afternoon. Will Mackanin continue to employ a nurturing touch as he tries to coax the behavior he's looking for from Herrera? Will Herrera be benched for the series finale Wednesday night?
"I have to keep having conversations with him, that's all," Mackanin said. "He's a different kind of guy. I just have to keep him pointed in the right direction.
"Odubel does a lot for us. He's just a different character. We have to deal with him in a certain way. I'll have a nice talk with him tomorrow. He's going to be fine. He's been doing very well in that regard for the last month or so. But he just needs a reminder. He's in a development stage, as well."